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Journey to the Oldest Town in Colorado

My uncle, in describing his family's visit to the Holy Land a few years ago, said, "It's like seeing the bible in 3D!" In three dimensions of course, as they toured many of the places from the scriptures. Made sense, though my mental picture of Easter and the Resurrection was in Sunday School, Easter Holiday celebrations, pictures, paintings, and the many artistic versions of the film industry making movies about the life of Christ.

On what would have been my dad's 88th birthday, I was able to make the visit to San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado dating to 1851, and make my own pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. Settled by the Spanish, early residents of San Luis battled the high desert mountain climate, Native Americans (sadly), and other obstacles to establish this community on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Critical to the town, was building the first acequias (irrigation ditches) diverting water from the Culebra River that flows down from the snow pack in the mountains to the east. Along with the Spanish colonial attitude, came their strong Catholic faith and determination, without which, it might have been easy to abandon creating San Luis and return to the more hospitable environments farther south along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond.

These community acequias, where everyone helped to keep the water flowing for pastures, and all other water needs, were nearly as sacred as their patron saints, churches and other religious images. This cooperation amongst the descendants of the first settlers of San Luis would come into play starting in 1986 when the idea for the Stations came to be.

On a day of perfection, sunny blue skies, temp around 70, light winds, green in the valleys and surrounded by beautiful snowcapped peaks as winter receded upward, I parked along Colorado Highway 159 in one of the many spaces provided across from the entrance to the Shrine. A school bus had preceded me by a few minutes so I waited for the students to make their way up the trail.

I thought about my dad, thinking that he would be glad I was making this journey on his birthday. After all, was I not making a journey about faith also, and though he died recently, because of his faith, yet he lives? Passing of our loved ones can be rough. I wrote at the time that life during times of grief can be like a turbulent storm on the ocean of internal darkness. What becomes our calling to carry on and celebrate life, get through our mourning period, then, lift ourselves up and use the gifts we were given, and keep our faith? I had asked dad several years ago, in his wisdom of about 85 years or so, on what he thought the meaning of life is. He wasn't really sure that morning but several days later as I had cooked him breakfast, he looked at me and said, "Ah, life is really about serving others, other than that, I really don't know the meaning." His answer was not really what I wanted to hear. At the time, I wanted something more definitive!

The Tour of the Stations of the Cross

I contemplated my dad's statement as I began my walk up the trail to Station number 1. The first station is Jesus being condemned by Pontius Pilate who served Rome and presided over the Jews and the trial of Jesus. As the story goes, Pilate found that Jesus was not guilty of the crimes for which he was on trial, and Pilate wanted to let him go... But, as it was written in prophecy about Jesus coming to save us from our sins, and that his being condemned to the cross was inevitable, and history played itself out. In the faces of the sculptures, so superbly done in bronze, the expressions of human emotions are so real, they can be felt. Beside each station are various scriptures from the new and old testaments about the event of each station to provide a link to understanding the sculpture a bit better. Also, are the names of families who covered the cost of the Shrine.

There is enough distance between stations to provide contemplation time to feel what Jesus, and those who were witnesses at the time, to truly absorb the emotions of how these events all came to pass. The stations in brief - Jesus having to bear his cross, falling for the first time, meeting his mother Mary, Simon helping Jesus carry his cross, Veronica wiping the sweaty and bloody face of Jesus from his crown of thorns, Jesus falling for the second time, Jesus consoling the women of Jerusalem, falling again, being stripped of his garments, being nailed to the cross, the crucifixion and his death, being placed in the arms of his mother, his burial in his tomb (though a pile of rocks like a grave represents the tomb), and then nearing the top of the hill below the chapel, and his resurrection.

In all, there are fifteen stations, each one masterfully sculpted to show the expressions of the people who were there, and evoke what emotions and feelings we humans have about life and the events that have passed. Yep, I had watery eyes a few times, for the event in history and for my dad, and other loved ones who have passed. The overall feeling? Joy! Though I sometimes wonder what makes humanity 'tick.'

I walked into the chapel on top of the hill and signed the guest registry for me and my dad. Then I toured the bust statues that are further up the hill thinking they may have been of the many contributing families who made donations for each station. To my surprise, the busts were of many Spanish Priests from Mexico who became martyrs in the 1920s when the Mexican government went on a rampage against religion and put to death those priests who served the church by serving the people. That's where my confusion comes into play. I spent about an hour and half on 'Calvary' here in Colorado. May be the closest I get to the holy land in Jerusalem, but that is why we humans build shrines.

NOTES FROM A DISCUSSION WITH THE SCULPTOR HUBERTO MAESTAS

As is my interview style, I like to have casual discussions and add a few 'stories' about an event or place other than what can be read on websites or brochures. Huberto had agreed to meet with me later in the day that I toured his sculptures of the Stations of the Cross. My first note is that 'nothing is easy, things are often a work in progress, and an original idea often is quite different as it evolves over time.'

The original idea was to have 14 inch bronze sculptures in the church yard to portray the stations. Easy and accessible right? Yes, but soon, Huberto realized that it needed to be more. Turns out, the priest had purchased land in San Luis, which just happened to be the Mesa upon which the Stations of the Cross reside. Much better idea. But, wow, it also became apparent that this would require building a trail, the sculptures would take more time and more money for raw materials all while attempting to make a living as a sculptor at the same time. Work began, and some of the station bronzes, which are two thirds life size, went fairly smooth and within the time frame for which all parties had hoped. One took two months. And one... If you ever get to meet Huberto about his trials and ordeals of doing the sculptures - for I will not reveal the humorous story here, but one of the sculptures was not coming together, even through many changes, it became apparent that the only thing to do was start over but it involved a purging so to speak and destruction via sledgehammer of the work in progress. It had to go away before it could be redone... The story about that destruction, and who just happened to show up at the time, is what was funny!

As luck and faith would have it, numerous families with strong ties to San Luis whether they lived here or not stepped forward with donations and all the stations were finished, the trail was built and later the chapel and the other statues were sculpted and it came together as it says on the brochure - as an act of faith and love for the parishioners of the Sangre de Cristo Parish. A place of good will. After a walk through the shrine, the brochure says, "We hope that you will find consolation and peace in your life."

Eventually, Huberto's talents has led to him getting his sculptures to the Vatican and places all over the country. His big garage style studio is located at the south end of San Luis. If the doors are open, stop in and say hello. There is whole lot going on! You may be politely shooed away if he is on deadline! As for a good quote from Huberto - "These types of projects can be scary but exciting, and with every one, you learn."

When the Stations of the Cross was officially dedicated, 10,000 people showed up for the event. Tells us something about faith, love and service to others...

San Luis is located 16 miles south of Fort Garland on Colorado 159 (from US) 160. Or several other backroads will get you here. There is no admission fee but donations for upkeep of the shrine can be made.

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